The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2018

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SEPT 2018 Issue
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Re: Moving Pictures

In writing this short piece about Luciano Fabro, I seek to posit a fresh and possibly perverse approach to re-viewing the received wisdom and conditions for understanding the artist’s oeuvre.

Over more years than I care to remember, I have found myself becoming accustomed (and oddly sensitized) to editorial convention that presents a body of learned text interspersed with, or juxtaposed against, exemplar images of key artworks intended to enable the readership to identify how ideas might look in practice. Without wishing to offend other commentators, the potential folly and condescension of this text-image-text approach only really came into sharp focus when I was trying to conjure something anew about Fabro that wasn’t desperately over-descriptive. I also didn’t wish to repeat that which had already been written around such iconic motifs as L’Italia d’oro (1968) or Contatto. Tautologia (1967 – 2001). Whilst such works, like many others by Fabro, are delightfully photogenic, I have, with some logic I hope, determined not to decorate my arguments and observations with pictures. Sadly for you then, dear reader, within the confines of these musings I offer no visual respite or pictorial distraction from a navigation of how one might experience or read Fabro’s significant allegorical constructs.

In keeping with the notion that this writing is freed from the pictorial, my central argument supports a position that focuses on the search for meaning derived from re-learning to read the objects of the work rather than on perceptions gained from a history of appearances, in print or otherwise. I would suggest that such conditions for re-reading require us to recognize our individual current circumstances and see with a fresh eye the capacity of Fabro’s works to act as resonant markers and material wayfinders in a world of the fugitive, the tautologous, and the abstract.

The temptation for commentators when addressing discrete bodies of work is to manage their accrued associations using the tools of historicity—that is, to repeat and re-deploy context as a way of neatly (authentically) fixing their individual or collective meanings in time—often attaching significant events as if they were portals for insight. Someone once said to me that Jackson Pollock was the ideal vehicle for art history: a receptacle to be successively filled and emptied of meaning by commentators ad nauseam1. So my sincere plea here is not to repeat what we’ve thought previously about Fabro—let’s take time with the works in person wherever possible—and think again.

In the early ’80s I remember being mesmerized upon seeing a version of L’Italia d’oro for the first time. For me as an art student it was a mind-boggling encounter, I had no idea how to take it. His characterization of Italy, hung inverted like some ironical heretical carcass, gilded and sacrificed, seemed to me at the time to be the epitome of a disrupted nationalism—an indictment of the body geo-politic. At the time, maybe I was as right as I could be. Some thirty-odd years later though, I increasingly find the certainty of hindsight and much improved knowledge of history to be a series of traps; traps tempting one to extend readings and arguments on Fabro and Arte Povera in particular, based on the prevailing conditions of a post-unification, post-war Italy in the 1960s. With L’Italia d’oro, one is literally tempted to cite such unsavoury examples as the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) who sought to separate Italy from NATO by extortion, or to refer to the patchwork of post-Matilden2 Italian history. The fact is that Italy has been, and still is, a work in progress and a tangle—the more I have learned of Italy, the more historicity has failed me as a device for affixing Fabro’s work.

The factors unifying an Italian heritage might be more usefully characterized by a history of suffering, poverty, migration, and the church and state in more or less subcutaneous, perpetual conflict. Oddly, I would say that this level of vague understanding would suffice in feeling confident about the origins of Arte Povera3 and Fabro in particular.

So as a reassurance to those who encounter Fabro’s work—should you need one—a knowledge of the devilish detail is not the key to understanding or enjoyment, but an open mind and a degree of diligence unhindered by a cell phone probably is. 

Should you think I have softened and lapsed into a romantic advocacy of the timelessness of art, let me reassure you I have not. What I am proposing is that Fabro’s work has an enduring timeliness; that is, being possessed of a rare capacity to be relevant outside the moments and circumstances of its production.


  1. In conversation with Professor Michael Corris, Oxford 1998.
  2. Matilde di Canossa of Tuscany (1046 – 1115) was at least partly responsible for the model of City States and dominated the Italian peninsula up until the unification of Italy in the 19th Century. Whilst known as Matilde of Tuscany, her power base was located in the strategically important Apennine area of Emilia-Romagna.
  3. As a point of fact the term Arte Povera in Italy is most commonly used to refer to second hand furniture to denote something like ‘Shabby Chic’ or old fashioned. See or other online Italian marketplaces for further information.


Neil Powell

Professor Neil Powell (Manchester, England 1961) is an academic, writer, and artist. In 2016 – 17 he worked on The British Art Show 8.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2018

All Issues